The creation of the Seri fishing cooperative: Assembling community and Comcaac collective action

It is well established that for thousands of years the ethno-linguistic group known as the Comcaac likely were organised around small nuclear groups of related kin, which were in turn grouped into six bands loosely affiliated through intermarriage and sharing similar core linguistic patterns, but inhabiting different regions (Moser, 1963). This social organisation was similar to other nomadic groups living in the desert and allowed them to best take advantage of the patchy distribution of food, water and other material resources needed for daily life. Felger and Moser (1985) beautifully described the diversity of plants and animals used by the Comcaac in the Sonoran Desert. Different bands could be distinguished by their different specializations on the hunting and gathering of some animals and plants over others, based on their availability in their locality. For instance, the hunting of sea lions (Zalophus califomianus) is said to have been unique to the band inhabiting the remote island of San Esteban (Bowen, 2000) (Figure 9.1).

In the 1920s, the Comcaac started shifting from nomadic to semi-sedentary strategies to appropriate fish. This change was facilitated by the emerging fish trade and the ensuing cash economy in the region. It was then that fish buyers increasingly took a leading role in organising collective action among the Comcaac by controlling the appropriation of fish. Sometime between 1926 and 1928, the Mexican brothers Roberto and Luis Thompson became the first fish buyers of the region finding in the Comcaac ‘willing’ and ‘resilient labor’ amenable to receiving clothing, sugar, coffee, food, and other goods in return (Smith, 1954). Soon the area of Kino Bay (Figure 9.1) became the most populated winter camp for the Comcaac, who settled around the landing of fish, a focal point of employment and easier access to material goods in demand by Comcaac families.

The following decade (1930s) saw a rapid expansion of Kino Bay as a permanent settlement. Comcaac and Mexican fishers regularly landed fish for an increasing number of fish buyers. Thompson was able to secure support from the State to the Comcaac in the form of vessels and fishing gear, and educational resources through the establishment of the first school in Kino for the primary benefit of Comcaac children (Smith, 1954). Yet, the increasing Mexican mestizo population in the locality resulted in Comcaac displacement, disease, and increased conflicts between them and with the immigrant fishers. According to Smith’s (1954) diary notes, however, fish buyers still preferred Comcaac fishing labor since they were “efficient and dependable”, they accepted material goods as payment, and were easy to trick when weighing their catch. As a result, fish buyers increasingly competed for Seri fishing labor as the demand for seafood and vitamin A obtained from shark liver increased in the advent of World War II.

In parallel, at the end of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 the emerging Mexican centralized State started defining its main policies to govern fisheries and ocean resources. The Fisheries Law of 1925 defined permits as the main policy tool to manage a number of species including sharks, sea-turtles, finfish, bivalves, lobster, shrimp, among others (Soberanes Fernandez, 1994). Access to fishing permits became exclusive to fishers organised into fishing cooperatives. Cooperatives constituted the main mechanism by which the

Mexican State channelled benefits to dispersed, isolated harvesters of seafood in an effort towards building a political constituency similar to that built with agricultural societies through the ejido land tenure system (Taylor, 2003). These constituencies were to become the rural base of the emerging official party (now known as the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI), which governed practically unopposed for 70 years until the year 2000.

In this new national political context, in 1939 a fish buyer named Jesus Solorzano saw the opportunity to outcompete other fish buyers by organising Seri production within the structure of a fishing cooperative in what is now the town of El Desemboque, more than 50 km north of Kino. According to Smith (1954) the move was mutually enabled: On the one hand, Solorzano was interested in capturing all Seri labor for himself and monopolising their catch, and on the other hand, the Comcaac desired to avoid assimilation and conflict with Mexican fishers in Kino. In this context, the agreement between Solorzano and Comcaac fishers to move to El Desemboque (Figure 9.1) and create the Seri Cooperative constituted an important moment of collective action. Although Smith’s (1954) diary provides evidence that Solorzano controlled decision-making of the Cooperative, by organising fishing around a common-property institution, Solorzano created the idea of Seri fisheries governance as a collective endeavour. No recorded evidence exists that the Comcaac worked collectively beyond the small family unit in other areas of life (except when waging war), or that they had developed other traditions of collective decision making. However, this moment of commonisation through the establishment of the Seri Cooperative, and the associated sedentarism that has continued until the present, helped build the powerful idea of the “Seri community”, an enduring external image of the Comcaac as a monolithic cultural group. While members of different bands were now living in the same spatial unit, how can we assume a priori they shared the same collective interests? Yet living together created the possibility or the basis for commoning, by more closely knitting their lived and collective histories with an already shared cosmology and sense of place.

Another tension to note is that the creation of the Seri Cooperative (“commonisation”) likely at the same time accelerated the decommonisation of fish in Seri territory by essentially transforming fish into a cash crop, particularly because decision-making of access and use of the fish were under the control of outsider groups. Between the years 1940 and 1948, Solorzano controlled the Cooperative and the territory of Desemboque (Smith, 1954). During this time, he built the Cooperative’s office and ice-house, obtained its first fishing permits, provided credit loans to its members, and established a school. Smith (1954) describes Desemboque during this time as a “model community in which the Seri tribe outnumbered the Mexicans approximately 2 to 1, and where the sale of Marijuana and liquor was prohibited”. Malkin (1962, p. 33) described the production arrangements surrounding the Seri Cooperative differently:

[t]he Seris’ commercial fishing is pretty much controlled and exploited by the two or three Mexican fish traders from Nogales and Hermosillo. These have their tiendas [stores] in El Desemboque, which at set prices sell things to the villagers. They also provide the Indians with the five horse-power motors for fishing trips and pleasure cruises and with the oil and gasoline essential to run these - also at set price. They finally purchase the fish - at a set price - and from the proceeds the Seris purchase goods at the tiendas, completing the cycle.

While increasingly living together (i.e., in Desemboque) and working within the same institutional arrangement (the Seri Cooperative), it is intriguing how the institutional arrangement of a fishing cooperative could have accommodated the Comcaac’s deeply engrained nomadic tendencies to work and benefit only their own clan or familial lines. As found by Nenadovic et al. (2018), for a cooperative to function as a basis for the generation of public and collective goods for their members, those members need to make contributions to it (e.g., develop a rule structure, land their fish at the cooperative, sanction rule breakers). The indication that this common-property institution was not well fitted for the Comcaac might have been evident from the conflicts that eventually emerged between Solorzano and the Comcaac. Solorzano eventually left Desemboque in 1948 and according to Smith (1954) the Cooperative declined under Comcaac leadership, unable to maintain basic administrative procedures and collective benefits (e.g., the school or credit to fishers) achieved during Solorzano’s tight grip. While the Comcaac were now in control of decision-making of the Cooperative, they still depended on outside fish buyers for the commercialisation of their catch. The Comcaac also lacked the appropriate political connections and capital to foster necessary economic development for the Cooperative and their town of Desemboque.

In summary, the establishment of the Seri fishing Cooperative fostered the idea or image in the public imaginary of community collective action among the Comcaac. Yet, the same institutional arrangement can be viewed as having provided a formal mechanism for decommonisation of Seri fisheries by outsiders. The dynamic could well be understood as one of exploitation by outsiders, aiming to control the fishing commons of the Comcaac. Although it is unclear whether the Comcaac would have been better off without the emergence of the Seri Cooperative, its formation also made Seri labor more legible (Scott, 1998) or governable, allowing outsiders to more easily organise production of Comcaac fishing commons.

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